Numbers 20: Thirty-Eight Years of Frustration

Old Testament Seminary Student Study Guide, (2002), 68


Numbers 20 recounts events that occurred approximately thirty-eight years after the rebellion incident in Numbers 16. We do not know what occurred during those years or why we don’t have a record of that period. Perhaps nothing was recorded because nothing really changed over those years. For example, Numbers 20 begins with a story of Israel murmuring against Moses and Aaron, which is exactly where the story left off thirty-eight years before. This time the story is a little different, however, in that Moses and Aaron became so frustrated that they used poor judgment in how they responded to the people. Because they used poor judgment, the Lord chastised them and told them they would not be privileged to lead the children of Israel into the promised land.By reading Deuteronomy 1:37; 3:25–28 we learn that Moses was chastised because of his disobedience. By punishing Moses, the Lord powerfully taught the children of Israel that obedience was required to enter the promised land—even (perhaps especially) if one happened to be the prophet. If Moses had varied from the Lord’s commands and gone unpunished, this hard-hearted people might possibly have excused their own sins on a greater matter by saying they saw Moses vary from the Lord’s commands and go unpunished. As evidence that the Lord did not seriously condemn Moses, we read in other scripture that he was translated into heaven without tasting death and that he appeared on earth at very important occasions to confer priesthood keys to future generations (see Luke 9:28–36; Alma 45:19; D&C 110:11).Numbers 20 also contains an account of Israel attempting to pass peacefully through the land of Edom and being met with resistance. The land of Edom was the land of Esau’s (Jacob’s brother) descendants. You may want to look at map 2 in the back of the Latter-day Saint edition of the King James Version of the Bible to trace the path of the Israelites.The beginning of Numbers 20 tells of the death of Moses’ sister, Miriam; the end of the chapter tells about the death of Moses’ brother, Aaron, and of Aaron’s son Eleazar becoming the high priest.